Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tall Ships

Waaaay back in what, for all practical purposes, amounts to a prior lifetime, I was an avid sailor. I was even an actual sailmaker for the duration and owned a couple of sailboats and, finally, ended up living on a 40 foot cabin cruiser circa 1910, which was one of the first powerboats on the Great South Bay. I have been on or close to salt water for pretty much my entire life. As such, I have a particular affinity for boats and a definite love affair with those of the wooden variety. These days, the boat in my life is a wooden kayak that I built myself about a decade ago. It suits my life much more effectively than a larger cruiser and offers the benefits of almost zero maintenance and excellent portability.

The love of the classic wooden sailing craft still remains, however. There are few things as thrilling as seeing one of these wonderful creations in full sail charging across the water. I've sailed a few of these beauties over the years but the last was well over a decade ago, when a few friends and myself delivered a custom built 40' Britt Chance designed wooden yawl around Long Island to its winter harbor on Shelter Island. It was a fine sail to end my sailing career with, with a broad reach the full legth of the south shore of  Long Island that sailors only dream of.

I've been fortunate of late to discover that unique sailing experiences are still within reach. Opening in the Terrence Joyce Gallery in Greenport has presented some unexpected benefits along these lines. The day we met Terrence in his gallery, the HMS Bounty happened to be visiting Greenport. I made the most of this surprise opportunity by taking a series of photographs, some of which are now on display in the Terrence Joyce Gallery. The reaction to the images was so positive that Terrence made a point of letting me know that the Privateer Lynx was coming to Greenport and suggested that photographs of the Lynx would be of interest as well. As luck would have it, the Lynx would be in Greenport for a week and we were able to match her schedule with the one free day I had in a three week window. Even better, we learned that you could participate on a day sail on that day! Of course, I committed to two slots immediately and my wife and I were set for a great afternoon on board.

The Lynx is a reproduction of a real privateer built in 1812. These were the days of the War of 1812 with the British and the Americans needed fast, nimble cargo craft to evade the British blockade. The small clipper styled privateers were the result. These craft were often lightly armed, but they were made for running rather than fighting. The modern Lynx has added low deck houses and more reasonable accomdations for the crew than the original, and has a deeper forefoot to improve tracking. Otherwise, she seems a faithful reproduction of the periods craft.

Nancy and I arrived early, so we could spend time in town and also get some shots of the Lynx at the dock. The crew was also allowing visitors on board, so we took the opportunity to explore the ship while it was relatively quiet and uncrowded.

The Ship's Bell (click on image to enlarge)

One of a pair of starboard cannon.

The big event was the sail of course. The day was brilliant with sun and a light to moderate breeze, in other words, perfect for a pleasant sail. I spent the afternoon mixing with the captain and crew while looking for interesting angles to photograph. While I make a pretty serious effort to stay out of the way, counter to the reputation that some photographers seem to strive for, the crew were exceptionally accomodating and willing to show off and discuss their vessel. It was a splendid afternoon.

I'm still processing the bulk of the images, but here are a few samples.

This image is looking straight up the foremast with the rig close hauled for the beat back to Greenport. The square rigged fore tops'l sets a strong diagonal against the other sails and standing rigging.

Before the mainsail was set, the crew had been flying the huge stars and stripes from the main rigging. I took about a dozen frames trying to get the masthead pennant and flag just right. This was the shot I was trying for. The deep blue sky is the result of the polarizing filter, which reduces reflected glare and really brings out the intense blue of the sky.

Last is my personal favorite from the day. I rarely shoot people, as I require a pretty special set of circumstance and subject to bring out the quality of image that draws me. This afternoon had one of those rare moments.

While prowling the decks looking for subjects, I spotted one of the crew on watch at the bow, looking out for small boat traffic as we crisscrossed the bay off Greenport. Here was the iconic image that calls out to me. Having stood my share of watches, I was instantly transported to that place that thousands of seaman before have lived, where the world is composed only of sky, sea, wind, a far horizon and the immediate needs of the ship.

I slid low along the windward cabin side and laid low in the gunwale, the crewman unawares, and angling up from this low position, framed the crewman against the backdrop of the boom rigged jib and fired off a half dozen frames. Perfect.

We finished up back at the Greenport docks and, after effusively thanking the crew and captain, Nancy and I headed to Clauidio's for dinner, the perfect end to a perfect day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nothing to See Here...

I remember reading a story by a well known pro photographer about a group of students he had brought into the field during a class. The assignment, if I remember correctly, was along the lines of going out into the woods to find subjects. About half an hour into the field time, two of the students returned to the shuttle and sat down. Asked why they were back so soon, they responded "There is nothing to shoot here".

He did not comment on how they performed in the course, but I suspect they did poorly. The point of the story, and the one I speak to here, is that this response illustrates a disappointing lack of vision, insight and awareness. Perhaps deadened by the wow-wiz-bang! of modern media, when faced with the reality of our actual world, little of it registers anymore. This is a loss with some very serious implications, and not just for photographer wannabes. Unlike the manufactured and intentionally over amped media that plagues our daily lives, the real world can be one of nuance and subtlety.

Allow me to supply a real life example. One cold January morning, I went through my usual pre-dawn routine, this particular morning headed for the Fire Island public beaches at Robert Moses State Park. My goal was, with luck, to get some spectacular sunrise images. I arrived on the beach with time to spare and set up - 5D body, 24-105mm lens and a full height tripod, polarizers and ND grad filters at the ready. And waited. I noticed two other photographers had also arrived on this particular morning, each had staked out a spot about a 1/8 mile away from mine, one to the west, the other to the east. We all waited for the sun to breach the horizon. As anyone knows who rises this early on anything resembling a regular schedule, truly spectacular sunrises doen't exactly show up on demand. As the old saying goes, "you pays your money and you takes your chances". As it happened, this morning was a very definite dud, for spectacular sunrises anyway. Oh, the sun arrived on time (whew!) but there wasn't a hint of a cloud to be seen, and for a spectacular sunrise, you need very good clouds arranged 'just so'.

As the horizon brightened, it became clear that this was not going to be a successful shoot, at least for the intended target. Sure enough, the other two photographers folded up their gear and left. As for me, I simply changed gears. If the big scene isn't cooperating, maybe something can be found in the more intimate details available. The light was certainly fantastic. As the sun inexorably cleared the horizon, the golden red light absolutely burned across the rippled sand at the surf's edge. I relocated to the edge of some shallow, sandy tide pools and started examining the play of light across the sand. It was amazing. I selected an isolated tide pool, with a clearly reflected sky in the still water, composed the shot and snapped the shutter.

(click image to enlarge)
The extremely flat angle of the sun changes quickly and one can't linger or other opportunities may be missed. After a few shots of the tide pool at different angles, I started working towards the west, looking for any interesting details. Shells of the large quahog clams that the area has long been known for are washed up in great numbers here. I found one that had been scoured by the sea and sand long enough to completely bleach it to white and roughen the hard, polished ridges. The low angle of the sun brought out all the fine details in the shell as it rested in the recently wave swept sand.

(click image to enlarge)
And so it went over the course of the next hour as I moved from one odd or interesting detail to the next. By opening ourselves to other possibilities and refusing to be overwhelmed by the large and the loud, a whole new world becomes available to us. We just have to have to learn to see it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Could it be the smog's playing tricks on my eyes
Or it's a rollerskater in some kind of headphone disguise
Maybe somebody who just ran out of gas
Makin his way back to the pumps the best way he can

Walking in LA
Walking in LA
Nobody walks in LA

- Missing Persons

These lyrics reminded me of something I saw on 34th Street in Manhattan one afternoon. A slickly dressed executive sort, young, very well dressed. He was clearly upset and yelling into his cell phone. As I closed on him, the conversation became more intelligible and I overheard these words: "These people are CRAZY!! They walk EVERYWHERE!!".

The funny thing is, he was right. Well, about the walking part. I'll leave the crazy bit for another day.

Walking is a lost art for most people. The modern convenience of the automobile has changed our collective perception of mobility and not always for the best. This convenience comes at a price, one where we have lost touch with our immediate neighborhood and surroundings. As  a kid, personal transportation was limited to feet or pedals. Both of these require a much more intimate relationship with our surroundings. For one, weather becomes something you experience, not just talk about. For another, you are far more likely to develop a working relationship with your neighborhood landscape. When walking, things pass by slowly enough to actually be noticed and considered. One of my favorite quotes is by Rebecca Solnit, who authored an impressive treatise on walking titled "Wanderlust: A History of Walking".

"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness."

I walk several miles a day going to and from work, the larger part of that being the 1.5 mile stretch between Penn Station and my office near the UN on the East Side. One might think walking the same path every day must be monotonous. In fact, if I were driving the same route, it would probably be deadly monotonous. Not so when walking, however. There are so many little details that one simply can't see when flying by in a car. Actually feeling the changing of the seasons and witnessing, first hand and close up, the world change as it moves through the seasons. Manhattan is simply filled to the brim - quite literally - with fascinating details. A day hasn't passed when I haven't noticed something new.

Carrying a small camera is essential, for as a photographer I realize how transient these moments of discovery can be. For this weeks blog entry, I provide some examples of little discoveries, unseen and unnoticed by the anonymous drivers passing by. The first is a small granite wall in Herald Square, covered in a shower of flower petals after a rain shower.

(click on image to enlarge)

Next is an architectural detail on a brownstone on 36th St. I was fascinated by the detail and textures on this old building.

Lastly, is a real find. I happened to notice this single orchid, seemingly staring out of a street level brownstone window. The framing, the reflection in the glass and the flower spoke to me of a quiet longing.  I almost walked by it myself when it caught my eye.

Here is the gift to the walkers, only we know the nature of our world.